By now films that explore the dark, kinky underbelly of American suburbia are common to the point of cliché. Sexual peccadilloes, marriages that are not what they seem, the corrupted “American dream” – all of these things have been explored time and again. And yet... there’s something about American Beauty that allows it to stand apart from its predecessors and imitators, and which allows it to stand up after multiple viewings. Whatever that elusive element is that just makes a movie work, American Beauty has it in spades.
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a man in turmoil. His life looks ideal – the nice house in the nice neighbourhood, the pretty wife and daughter, the comfortable uniformity shared with his neighbours; the personification of middle-class success. He implores us, however, to “look closer.” Behind the respectable veneer is fraud and despair. He gets no respect from his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) or their daughter Jane (Thora Birch), nor does he deserve any. His job is meaningless and his life is slowly ticking away into nothingness. He is, the film would have us believe, the average, miserable suburbanite.
Carolyn and Jane are miserable, too, though Carolyn is so adept at pretending to be happy and perfect that she’s nearly fooled herself into really believing it. While Lester has allowed himself to sink, Carolyn continues to reach, wanting to drag herself up to the next level even if it means sacrificing her humanity. She’s a real estate agent, supporting the family by selling others on the fantasy of life in the suburbs, and the toll that her job takes on her is extreme. In one scene she brutally berates herself for her failure to sell a house, her feelings of low self-worth channelled into a drive to sell, to succeed, to live up to the picture of perfection that she’s trying to live.
Things begin to change when Lester lays eyes on Angela (Mena Suvari), a cheerleader and friend to Jane. In a scene that has since been much parodied, Lester watches as a group cheerleading routine dissolves into a private dance from Angela, who opens her uniform to shower him with rose petals. Lester is a changed man, his morose bearing suddenly replaced by an eagerness to live, to savour and enjoy the best that life has to offer. He gets into shape, he regains his self-esteem, he quits his job – he becomes the man that he has always wanted to be but was too scared to become.
Lester’s transformation has repercussions that affect all in his vicinity. In declaring his own ordinariness and that of those around him to be insufficient, he not only strips away the facade behind which he had been hiding, but he exposes all those around him as frauds. In rejecting Carolyn’s idea of perfection, he destabilizes her conception of herself. In refusing to play by the implicit suburban rules, he disrupts the lives of his neighbours, such as the Fitts family next door. Lester becomes a dangerous figure because he becomes the bearer of truth in the midst of people who feel safe only when ensconced in falseness.
All of this unfolds with the aid of a smart, darkly funny screenplay from Alan Ball. The crispness of the script, played out by a cast of actors at the top of their game, is what gives American Beauty its edge over other films like it. It is not at all surprising that the film earned a host of Oscar nominations (many of which it won), but it is surprising that only two of its actors – Spacey and Bening – received nominations. From Birch as the teenager whose sarcasm masks low self-esteem, to Suvari as the high school princess who is more innocent than she seems, to Chris Cooper and Allison Janney as the broken down neighbours and Wes Bently as their sensitive, poetic son, the entire cast is outstanding, playing at extremes without ever dipping over into parody.
However, despite its strengths, American Beauty is problematic in its depiction of gender, skewing towards the ultra-traditional and anti-feminist in its narrative progression. The film opens with a wife who not only works but is a more successful provider than her husband and clearly puts her career before her family. Her husband is emasculated, her family is in tatters. As the husband regains control and self-esteem, the wife begins to flail. The ease with which the husband regains dominance in the relationship shows that the wife’s power was never more than illusory – she was in control because her husband could not rouse himself to stop her, but once he wants control back, she proves to be powerless against him. Further, once the balance begins to weigh more clearly in favour of the husband than the wife, the household becomes demonstrably happier. Much of the film’s dark humour comes at the expense of the wife, her desire to climb the social and professional ranks, and her inability to keep up once her husband begins to reassert himself. Though the film ostensibly stands against the complacency of traditional family values, it does in fact reinforce the most conservative gender politics.
Films like this one tend to have a short shelf-life because the things they depict are so firmly grounded in a specific time and place, a specific moment in cultural evolution, that they don’t move along with shifts in the zeitgeist. American Beauty, however, is so perfectly put together that it has somehow maintained its freshness ten years after its release. The message it imparts – be happy rather than complacent, look beneath the surface rather than at it, don’t let other people tell you what you want – remains powerful and relevant and the finesse with which that message is imparted remains just as impressive today as it was in 1999. American Beauty is a film that stands the test of time and one can imagine that 10 years from now it will still be a movie worth talking about.